This slim book takes on a big question: “How did the citizens of ancient Athens learn to live in a democracy?” It’s an important question, both for our knowledge of the classical city and for our understanding of how citizenship works in democracies today. Readers will likely relate to Niall Livingstone’s observation that many Athenians who lived through the later 5 th century felt that the world had been turned upside down (p. viii, 5). This sense of dislocation, familiar to many today, makes Livingstone’s investigation both timely and engaging.
Livingstone’s thesis is that “learning in Athens was pervasive and immersive, woven into the daily practice of citizen life itself” (p. vii). Since most Athenians had little or no access to formal education such as that offered by “sophists” or philosophical schools, they learned how to participate in civic life by being immersed in the city itself. Education was pervasive, because the necessities of urban life required Athenians to navigate overlapping social, political, and commercial networks. Through these exchanges, they taught each other how democratic society worked in practice. Education was thus also performative, since every social space in Athens could serve as a stage upon which citizens showed each other which sorts of behavior were acceptable for citizens, and which were not. The concept of public performance as a form of education is not new; some of the best examples from classical Athens include the tragedies and comedies performed on stage and the speeches delivered at assembly meetings or in trials. Yet a range of humbler, everyday interactions also played a crucial role in the education of citizens. An Athenian performed his citizenship as he walked through the agora, exercised in the gymnasion, drank in a tavern, or sat in the barber’s chair. Any public space in the city could double as a place of learning. In this way, Livingstone asserts, Athens itself was a university for its people.
Livingstone lays out his argument in three chapters encompassing a wide range of evidence, from the familiar territory of Hesiod and Homer to a lengthy discussion of an obscure treatise by Alcidamas, a fourth-century contemporary of Isocrates. The overarching analysis is chronological, proceeding roughly from the seventh through the fourth century BCE, but also thematic in that each chapter focuses on different topics. Extensive endnotes accompany each chapter, as well as the Introduction and Conclusion. There is also a useful bibliography, index, and index of quotations from ancient authors.
Chapter One, “Setting the Stage for Citizens,” begins with the observation that democracy has “always and everywhere, consisted of interlocking patterns of social conventions, legal regulation, and political activity” (p. 5). Livingstone notes that the core ideals of Athenian democracy, best known from famous texts such as the Funeral Oration in Thucydides’ History, were “openness to the ideas of all, and determination to make use of everyone’s abilities” (p. 7). While acknowledging that Athenian society was built on the disenfranchisement and oppression of more than half of the city’s population (women, slaves, metics), this chapter concerns itself with trying to understand how Athenians developed paradigms of “civic inclusion, collective decision making, and collaboration” that (for free male citizens at least) made the system so successful (p. 6-7). For a democratic society to work, it must produce citizens who internalize and reproduce democratic values and leaders “who will shine when they take the stage, and yet be willing to step off it as well as onto it” (p. 9).
How to create such a culture? After a discussion of the Iliad and Works and Days, which, Livingstone argues, contain critiques of unbridled aristocratic power that subtly point toward the emerging ideology of the polis, the later half of the chapter analyzes the lyric poems of Solon. Livingstone provides translations from Solon’s poems, which the lawgiver used to advocate for a policy of moderation, cooperation, and collective integrity among Athenian citizens. (p. 20-6). At times, Solon presented himself as a heroic figure who—like a character from Iliad or a hoplite—showed Athenians how to come together into a single society by offering himself as a conspicuous public example: “I stood holding a mighty shield over both sides, and allowed neither to triumph wrongly over the others” (quoted on p. 39). Yet he also warned that destructive greed and excess ( koros) would lead to reckless mistreatment of others and disregard for their autonomy ( hybris) and result in destructive social strife ( stasis) (p. 36). Solon thus became the first Athenian to “perform” citizenship for his peers by simultaneously asserting and undercutting the role of the exceptional civic leader (p. 25).
Chapter Two, “Citizen Spaces,” shifts the focus from democratic ideals expressed in poetry to the display of those ideals in the urban landscape. Solon’s works suggest that, for democracy to be possible, individuals need to be able not only to lead but also to relinquish their leading roles. The key to this, for Livingstone, is the creation of a shared middle ground between opposing factions or position, a space ( khora) in which anyone might seize the moment or opportunity ( kairos) to stand out (p. 38). Building on the work of Sarah M. Evans, Harry C. Boyte, and Kostas Vlassopoulos, he tours Athens seeking these “shared, common spaces” where opportunities for engagement or leadership would present themselves to citizens. One such place is, unsurprisingly, the agora, a part of the city where a citizen could attend to his needs in food shops, tailors, perfumers, or barbershops, but a place that also required him to know how to behave as he navigated many intersecting social groups (p. 54). Like their counterparts in the bustling port of Piraeus, businesses in the agora were places where social cliques and networks took shape, information was exchanged, alliances formed, and opportunities for conspiracy considered (p. 60). They were also places where an individual who did something foolish or acted beyond the pale might be publicly shamed or rejected. As in the modern world, commercial and social transactions required an understanding of acceptable discourse and behavior. Businesses thus became places of performative learning for Athenian citizens.
To illuminate this point, Livingstone cites evidence from a variety of texts. In Eupolis’ fragmentary comedy Flatterers, for example, the titular character is depicted as the ultimate creature of the agora because of his ability to smoothly pivot from the procuring of goods and services to the currying of social favors (p. 47-8). Another “stock type” who frequents the agora and moves seamlessly between public and private spheres is the cook, as depicted in comedies such as Aristophanes’ Acharnians or Dionysios’ fragmentary work Namesakes (p. 48-9). On the social nature of barbershops, Livingstone cites Lysias’ Against Pancleon, in which the speaker treats it as common knowledge that men from the rural deme of Dekeleia could reliably be found loitering in a barber’s shop on the Street of the Herms (p. 58). There is also a telling pair of lines from Eupolis’ comedy Marikas : “I learned a great deal myself in the barber’s shops, sitting unnoticed, pretending not even to understand” (quoted on p. 57). These examples effectively illustrate Livingstone’s point that the shared spaces of Athens were sites of education that rivaled the theater, assembly, or courts because they too were places where citizens performed and reproduced knowledge about how to “fit into” democratic society.
Chapter Three, “The Citizen Performer” focuses almost entirely on a treatise by Alcidamas of Elaia, On Writers of Written Speeches. Livingstone provides a translation of this overlooked work at the beginning of the chapter, followed by an overview of its main points that engages with major scholarship on Alcidamas’ argument (p. 73-83). This chapter is a dense read. Discussion of seven different forms of speechmaking in fourth-century Athens, or the application of Robert Hariman’s four-point definition of political style to Athenian politics, for example, might be easier to digest if accompanied by visual references such as a chart or bulleted list (p. 85-91). The overall message, however, does come through.
Democracy assumes that people have, or can have, the ability to govern themselves. However, competing models of political education offer strategies for citizens to gain advantage over their political rivals—and thus greater influence over their peers. Political education can thus paradoxically distance citizens from democratic ideals (p. 86). In On Writers, Alcidamas addressed this problem by attacking composers of precise, elaborately crafted speeches intended to be read or recited from memory at assembly meetings or at trials. In his view, citizens who rely on such forms of preparation ( paraskeue) are absurd, out of touch, arrogantly detached, and perhaps even use their fine words to mask sinister plans that may threaten the community (p. 87). Instead, Alcidamas asserted that speakers should cultivate an ability to ride the current of debate, gauge the moods of their listeners, respond quickly to changes in the crowd, and seize whatever advantage chance might offer (p. 88). If the heart of politics is live human interaction, then citizens who display unfettered responsiveness to their peers ( eukairia) instead of crafted, rigid precision ( akribeia) “perform” democracy more honestly.
Improvisation, of course, happens all the time: no conversation can take place without it. To Livingstone, Alcidamas’ portrait of the improviser is a valuable window into how most Athenians would have received their political education. Ordinary Athenians talked with each other—in barbershops, on the streets, while rowing triremes—and those freewheeling conversations became models for democratic citizenship. An Athenian didn’t need a formal tutor or a clever speechwriter to teach him about democratic values and civic duty. If he was engaged in public life and paid attention to what he saw, the city itself offered lessons in abundance.
Livingstone’s work is an important reminder that “culture” (political or otherwise) is grounded in face-to-face human interactions. His book is a powerful statement about how much ancient Athens still has to teach us. It was at times a sobering read, as democracies around the world are buffeted by political disillusionment, populist frustration, suspicion of expertise, and a sense of deepening rifts between citizens. One need not look far to see Alcidamas’ “rhetoric of anti-rhetoric” in full effect, as politicians portray their own political performances as down-to-earth, off the cuff, and genuine while decrying those of their opponents as canned, deceitful, and even treasonous (p. 70). This book is animated by a conviction that classical Athens can still serve as a university, if we pay attention to ways its citizens met (or failed to meet) similar challenges to civil society in their own time. For this reason and several others, it is a worthwhile and compelling read.